These days, it might be a little bit taken for granted that Black girls can rock (and have been doing so since Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” got covered by Elvis), and that Afropunk is a legit movement with thousands of supporters, and that, duh, Black people have been rocking since the music genre’s invention.
But rewind things back to the deeply segregated radio days of 1985, and the commercial resistance to Black folks in rock was definitive, silencing and real.
Musician/critic Greg Tate of Burnt Sugar Arkestra remembers the genesis of the Black Rock Coalition as an antidote to the foolishness, partly the result of a casually tossed racist comment about Black artists in rock music. Tate describes the initial 1985 meeting of great music minds led by a racism-fatigued Vernon Reid of the band Living Colour as being inspired by their friend guitarist Ronny Drayton overhearing a stranger at a New York club declare that “n*ggers can’t play no rock and roll.”
“At which point,” says Tate, “Ronny, according to [New Jack City screenwriter] Barry Michael Cooper, went off into a killun solo crouched on a tabletop and said, ‘This is for you, White boy,’ and served his agape ass a six-string knuckle sammich. I consider Vernon to be my first Black president.”
This episode, as well as a minimally attended show by friends he thought were deserving of a packed house, compelled Reid to organize that 1985 “head check” to corral space (and community) for Black rockers. And the Black Rock Coalition was born. It was DIY before DIY became a standard acronym in music, because its denizens had to do it themselves. Reid’s own experience with forming Living Colour informed his desire to push the envelope and organize.
Soon the BRC’s ranks swelled with the cream of cutting-edge Black performers—Black punk, grunge and metal heads, blues rockers, anyone who felt nation-less and excluded from the greater umbrella of American hardcore music found a home in the BRC. Reid even called Daniel Chavis of the alt-rock band The Veldt at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, asking for his group to get down with the movement.
Thirty years later, the BRC is still going strong as a vital organization, led by its longest-serving president LaRonda Davis, and they recently celebrated this milestone with 30 Years in 30 Days, a multi-city festival of shows that featured some of the BRC’s famous founding members and a few exciting new faces.
For EBONY.com, Vernon Reid looks back on the Black Rock Coalition’s 30 years of mosh pit madness and on laying the groundwork for Black rock’s American evolution.
EBONY: What do you remember being the event or thought process that led you to form the Black Rock Coalition?
Vernon Reid: It was a sparsely attended gig by my friends Melvin Gibbs and DK Dyson’s band Eye & I that was the final straw for me. I called Greg Tate for a “head check.” It all started from there, that culminating frustration.
EBONY: Thinking back on the needs that the organization served for you as a young musician, how does the Black Rock Coalition serve a young person like the teens in metal band Unlocking the Truth now?
VR: I think that it helps for a young person to put themselves in an ever-evolving context—it didn't start with them and won't end with them—[and] to see Black Rock as an always emergent channel for witnessing and expression, personal truth-telling, music for its own sake, contradictory impulses. Unlocking the Truth gets to see itself as part of a continuum that they are a necessary part of.
EBONY: Is your organization as necessary today as it was in previous decades, with the growing influence of Afropunk’s festival and online hub?
VR: Absolutely. The BRC and Afropunk are not mutually exclusive. Afropunk is a crucial evolutionary divergent strain of the same central idea: Black people are not a monolithic, easy-to-categorize-and-discard conceptual space. There is overlap; other movements and offshoots are sure to follow.
EBONY: What’s your opinion on the state of Black rock now, with the commercial and critical success of acts like Gary Clark Jr., Alabama Shakes, Unlocking the Truth and Janelle Monáe’s indie label affiliates Deep Cotton? Is it harder or easier now than when Living Colour arrived on the scene?
VR: There has been a beautiful flowering of diverse talent; the social media space has had a tremendous lot to do with [the] swiftness of adoption and adaptation.
When we arrived on the scene, it was frankly doubtful. The track record of success for bands like [Living Colour] was doubtful and yet it happened, which made it easier for artists like Lenny Kravitz and Rage Against the Machine to happen on their own merits, the same way that Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” was a beacon in the shadows [for us]. Living Colour could not have made it without the Bus Boys, Jon Butcher Axis, Bad Brains, Neon Leon, [or] Mother’s Finest.
EBONY: How do you see the Black Rock Coalition evolving in the future?
VR: I think that continuing to engage in the questions raised by the music we’re making is part of evolving it, as well as who’s got next generationally. We have witnessed an industry collapsing in on itself, to be replaced with…?
Technology is shifting certain things, but not the fundamental principles: that everyone invested in a certain narrative about Black identity has a right to agree or disagree with the prevailing wisdom, or the lack thereof, and set it to their own soundtrack.
Sun Singleton is a musician/editor/journalist based in New York City whose work has been featured in a variety of publications, including Vibe, Mass Appeal, Complex.com, Bronx Biannual, YOYO/SO4 and BET.com. Feel free to connect with her on Twitter at @sunsing.